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updated 9/15/2006 2:09:34 PM ET 2006-09-15T18:09:34

From tongue-in-cheek observations to truly horrific accounts, Keith Olbermann skewers both the mighty and the meek, the well-known and the anonymous for their misdeeds in his new book, "The Worst Person in the World."

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann discussed his book on the "Today" show. Below is an excerpt:

They aren’t really the worst persons in the world, of course.

Somewhere somebody’s ending freedom, or sticking a shiv into a witness, or defrauding an orphan, or bombing a home. And there’s almost nobody in this book who—in any kind of empirical analysis of the worst person in the world at a given moment—could truly hold a candle to any of them.

But my guys and gals have all, in their own ways, tried.

Orphans may have nothing to fear, and freedom is more likely to hurt itself laughing at them than to be hurt by their Rube Goldbergian machinations. But these Worsts (if you’ll permit the term) are the mortal enemies of honesty and dignity, of selflessness and class.

In short—they’ll do.

The epithet tracks directly to three of the great influences of my late childhood: George Carlin, Bob Elliott, and Ray Goulding. They were classified as comedians, yet each—Carlin in his remarkable solo career and Bob & Ray in their nonpareil tandem work—was a social commentator.

It was Carlin who startled me decades ago by the simple but irrefutable argument—the astonishing observation hidden inside the safety of a joke—that by the process of ranking, there truly had to be, somewhere, the worst doctor in the world. More terrifying still, he noted, “somebody has an appointment to see him tomorrow!”

Bob & Ray proclaimed themselves political neutrals (while allowing me a visit to their New York radio studios in 1974, Ray told me they didn’t do political humor because “how could we top Watergate?”). Yet twenty years before, they had wrung Joe McCarthy’s neck every morning by mocking the Army-McCarthy hearings. Ray could do a perfect imitation of McCarthy’s manic tone of “I’m just about to go crazy so better put some newspaper on the floor,” and Bob captured the artificial self-deprecation of attorney Joseph Welch, giving him the priceless catchphrase “I’m just a simple showbiz lawyer.”

They made McCarthy into a building commissioner in the fictional town of Skunkhaven, Long Island, and inserted him seamlessly into their unending and ad-libbed mock soap opera, “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife.” They utterly erased the politics of the equation and left only the absurdity. Morning after morning—when this was still dangerous stuff—their McCarthy and their Welch battled it out on one of New York’s most-listened-to radio stations, over a plan to build a 30-story-tall private home.

When I heard them two decades later, “Mary Backstayge” was still running. The McCarthy and Welch vocal doppelgangers were long gone, but in their place was an ominous character, the W.P.I.T.W.—the Worst Person in the World—who made no comments, but was limited to a series of crunching and slurping sound effects. He invariably turned up while the other characters were dining. “Look at him,” Ray would say in the gummy voice of Calvin Hoogevin. “He’s eating the sandwich right through the wax paper.” Soon after the W.P.I.T.W.’s appearance, his true identity was revealed, on the air. He was John Simon, the venerable reviewer of New Yorkmagazine—who had given Bob & Ray’s Broadway show the only bad review it ever got.

So there are the primogenitors of my “Worst” lists—complete with Carlin’s touch of amazed terror, the Bob & Ray conviction that no weapon succeeds like satire, and that little extra soupcon of revenge, personal and egotistical, and somehow cleansed of both characteristics by the stark admission that it is revenge.

For many months, I had contemplated introducing a segment to my nightly MSNBC newscast, Countdown, that somehow combined all these elements with which I was inculcated as a boy.  I had tentatively thought of “The S List”—but that seemed way too generic. And then one day late in June 2005, two things happened within hours of each other. First, I heard a tape of one of those Bob & Ray soap operas with the W.P.I.T.W. eating not just the wax paper but also the brown bag in which his lunch sat. Then, I read Alessandra Stanley’s review in the New York Times suggesting that our network needed to cancel Tucker Carlson’s new show. This rang as the quintessence of unfairness. MSNBC had been blasted, for years, for never giving new programs any time to develop. Tucker had been on the air less than two weeks.

Suddenly the two names merged. “Worst Person in the World . . . Alessandra Stanley.” We premiered the segment that night, and setting the standards for a certain kind of fairness, Stanley proved only a runner-up. I have never placed my prejudice ahead of somebody else’s superior mendaciousness. Here is that first segment:

A new feature debuting tonight: Countdown’s list of today’s top three nominees for “The Worst Person in the World.” Number three: Alessandra Stanley, TV writer or critic or something—it’s hard to tell what—of the New York Times. As her latest article suggests, if she keeps passing off that many dubious opinions as anonymous facts, she may soon lose her . . . situation.

Number two: Saddam Hussein. This is separate from the whole dictator thing. He has now threatened to sue the newspaper that first ran the photo of him in his underwear.

As its headline today ran: “You and what army?”

And number one: Robert Novak.

We still know what you did last summer! Well, summer before last summer.

The Worst Person in the World.

And from there we were rolling, devoting about 90 seconds of each news hour to this odd little list.

The mighty and the anonymous alike have made the nightly “The Worst Persons in the World” trifecta—from Robert Novak to Scott Peterson to the Ronald McDonald who held up a Wendy’s.  And there have really been only a handful of complaints.

The foremost of them came from John Gibson and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Evidently they don’t like being considered among the Worst Persons in the World—even though they clearly are.

O’Reilly first, because he was funnier.

Late in December 2005, Ted Baxter’s evil twin did some sort of year-end wrap-up of his rants and distortions. It was a self-loofah’ing of congratulation, for the nightly disaster his program means for the truth. “Speaking of disasters, our competitor at MSNBC is a notorious smear merchant. So far this month, December, The Factor’s third rerun at 4:00 in the morning has beaten the MSNBC’s original 8:00 program more than 50 percent of the time. Unbelievable.”

A couple of things to note here: We never claimed O’Reilly’s program doesn’t draw vastly more viewers than does ours. The years 2005 and 2006 saw his ratings slide and ours grow by about 50 percent, but the gap is still pronounced, and, after all, some time in the 1970s or 1980s we stopped worrying about the quality of things, and were concerned only about how many of them were sold.

To borrow a phrase—hey, 800 billion flies can’t be wrong.

But it is curious, isn’t it, that O’Reilly branded me a “smear merchant” and yet instead of trying to refute even one of the hateful things we’ve quoted him as saying or doing, he instead turned to the ratings. That’s probably because the only things we’ve “smeared” O’Reilly with were his own quotes.

To borrow another phrase—when you’re as guilty as he is, change the subject.

Unfortunately I now have to change the subject to John Gibson, and this remains greatly painful because I really don’t know why he decided to try to destroy himself, but he did. O’Reilly, after all, is one of those blissful idiots who can rationalize anything. That doing that long enough usually results in a complete collapse is well known, and his clock is clearly ticking in that regard.

But even he was not so functionally stupid as to deny saying things that were preserved on tape—which is what poor John Gibson did.

John had originally made the Worst Person list, thusly:

But the winner, and this one comes with great personal pain because we were friends when he worked here and thereafter, John Gibson.

Selling his new book about this phony baloney war on Christmas, John revealed a very ugly side to himself. He is one of those people who think all religions but his are mistaken. You know, the way a lot of these religious nut bag terrorists think. ‘I would think’ Gibby said on a syndicated radio show, ‘if somebody is going to be—have to answer for following the wrong religion, they are not going to have to answer to me. We know who they’re going to have to answer to.’

I’d tell you which religion John thinks is the only one that’s right, but what’s the difference? It’s not the faith that’s the issue. It’s the intolerance. John Gibson, today’s Worst Person in the World.

John first complained about that on his radio program, then he called all manner of people at NBC and MSNBC, and then he went to town on his television show: “I find myself being misquoted or the quotes taken out of context in order to build outrage against me... [I’m called] “names like ‘fathead’ and the ‘worst something or other’ for things I really did not say...

“Friday one of my former colleagues repeated a misquote to justify saying some truly disgusting things about me. Condescendingly, he ‘tisk tisked’ that he used to like me. I frankly doubt it. Otherwise, why be so willing to believe trash?”

Well, John, I believed it because it was true—and it was on tape. I’m afraid he was, at best, suffering from amnesia. At worst, he was just flat-out pretending something never happened.

John Gibson’s remarks about religions being wrong and those who believe them having to answer for them came on a show hosted by a Janet Parshall, broadcast by Salem Radio Networks, on November 17, 2005—and they’re on tape. The website Media Matters for America has a transcript and an audio link, and I’m afraid there’s no ambiguity whatsoever.

This is what he said, without edit or interruption of context:

John Gibson: “The whole point of this is that the tradition, the religious tradition of this country is tolerance, and that the same sense of tolerance that’s been granted by the majority to the minority over the years ought to go the other way too. Minorities ought to have the same sense of tolerance about the majority religion—Christianity—that they’ve been granted about their religions over the years.”

Janet Parshall: “Exactly. John, I have to tell you, let me linger for a minute on that word ‘tolerance.’ Because first of all, the people who like to promulgate that concept are the worst violators. They cannot tolerate Christianity, as an example.”

John Gibson: “Absolutely. I know—I know that.”

Janet Parshall: “And number two, I have to tell you, I don’t know when they held this election and decided that tolerance was a transcendent value. I serve a god who, with a finger of fire, wrote, he will have no other gods before him. And he doesn’t tolerate sin, which is why he sent his son to the cross, but all of a sudden now, we jump up and down and celebrate the idea of tolerance. I think tolerance means accommodation, but it doesn’t necessarily mean acquiescence or wholehearted acceptance.”

John Gibson: “No, no, no. If you figure that—listen, we get a little theological here, and it’s probably a bit over my head, but I would think if somebody is going to be—have to answer for following the wrong religion, they’re not going to have to answer to me. We know who they’re going to have to answer to.”

Janet Parshall: “Right.”

John Gibson: “And that’s fine. Let ’em. But in the meantime, as long as they’re civil and behave, we tolerate the presence of other religions around us without causing trouble, and I think most Americans are fine with that tradition”

Sigh.

There is always the possibility—however remote—that it wasn’t John Gibson speaking, but merely some kind of professional John Gibson Impersonator, or a vocal impressionist as gifted as Ray Goulding doing his Joe McCarthy in 1954. In which case, the impersonator is clearly the Worst Person not just of the night, but of all time.

Otherwise, that’s really the whole shebang right there.

That phrase “wrong religion” actually reads worse in context, doesn’t it? It’s the same kind of misunderstanding and perversion of faith to which we react in horror when we see it in terrorists who have twisted religions for their own purposes. Might as well have been commentators on some All-Access Al Qaeda show on Al Jazeera talking about infidels.

And by the way, don’t you get this creepy feeling of embarrassment when somebody trying desperately to be holier-than-thou promptly misquotes the bible? “I serve a god who, with a finger of fire,” you just read the transcript of Janet Parshall saying, “wrote, he will have no other gods before him.”

Actually, Ms. Parshall, as any of us who’ve actually read the bible know, the first commandment is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” That’s not just a difference in pronouns—he’s demanding exclusivity from those who believe in him. Nothing in there saying other people can’t serve other gods in which they believe.

I’ve strayed from the main topic, probably because it is awfully painful. Whether he thinks me insincere or not, I really did like Gibby: hard-working, always there to cover a shift or help out in any way he could. Instead, he devolved into denying he said some truly despicable things—things recorded for posterity—and worse, he tried to blame those hateful things on me. Ordinarily when somebody gets caught saying something as intolerant as this, their choices are (a) to apologize, (b) to resign, or (c) to make sure there’s no tape and try to lie their way out of it.

John chose “d”—blame it on somebody else.

The audio clip was the definitive answer (we sometimes spend hours looking for verification of “Worst” tips, and postpone nominations for days, because unlike other newscasters and commentators, I have this silly idea in my head that the whole point of any criticism is that it has to be based on discernible facts). I said on Countdown that I hoped John would have the self-respect to acknowledge what he said and to leave the airways for good, because, between the remark and the denial, he had—sadly—forfeited his right to stay here.

He didn’t. But neither did he bring the matter up again on the air. Or phone again, as he did some of our twentieth-century colleagues at MSNBC and NBC News. Or say much of anything else that anybody cared about.

Of Mr. O’Reilly, you probably know. As his appearances on the list increased in number and frequency (hell, one night he won all three places), he began to criticize me indirectly, calling out my bosses on the air—but never me, not by name—and eventually jumping the proverbial shark by announcing an online petition to get me fired (all of us on Countdown signed, me included) and then infamously threatening a caller to his radio call-in show with visits from “local authorities” and “Fox Security” because the caller had had the audacity to mention my name on Mr. O’Reilly’s air.

Exit Mr. O’Reilly’s grasp of reality, stage left.

Before we get to some of the individual nightly lists, I must say that the “Worsts” have achieved a kind of unexpected status as electronic red badges of courage in the cultural battles. A conservative colleague of Gibson and O’Reilly, whose name I must not divulge because his good-natured willingness to take criticism and spoofing would make him suspect in the eyes of his less brainy brethren, recently buttonholed me and complained that he hadn’t been one of the Worst Persons. “It’s my goal in life,” he said with a laugh. I told him he simply had yet to say or do something totally indefensible.

He laughed again. “I’ll just have to keep trying.”

He may or may not. But this much is undoubtedly true: Dozens of others certainly will.

Excerpt from Keith Olbermann’s The Worst Person in the World – And 202 Strong Contenders. Copyright 2006 by Olbermann Broadcasting Empire, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by John Wiley & Sohns, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey

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